USNI News polled its writers, naval analysts and service members on what they consider the most important military and maritime stories in 2018. This story is part of a series; please also see U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy Operations.
The Marine Corps spent 2018 preparing the force for a new era of warfare, modernizing how it conducts its business in ways large and small.
Arguably the biggest headline for the service this year was the first deployment of the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter on a routine Amphibious Ready Group/Marine Expeditionary Unit float, and the jet’s first combat actions during that deployment.
F-35Bs from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211 in the 13th MEU departed California on the Essex ARG in mid-July, and by September the ARG/MEU team had chopped into U.S. 5th Fleet. The F-35Bs were the only sea-based naval strike aviation assets in the region, and they were quickly put to use: on Sept. 27, the F-35B conducted its first-ever combat strike, successfully dropping bombs on targets in Afghanistan as part of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.
Additionally, the Marines’ first operational F-35B squadron, VMFA-121 based at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Japan, got to conduct its first at-sea ARG/MEU operations in March after amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD-1) arrived in Japan in January as the new forward-deployed big-deck amphib. Among VMFA-121’s activities this year was participation in the high-end exercise Valiant Shield in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.
In a year of F-35B firsts, there was an unwelcome first – the aircraft had its first midflight mishap in September when a plane from Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 (VMFAT-501) crashed near MCAS Beaufort in South Carolina. The pilot safely ejected, and the Marine Corps has not spoken much about the nature of the crash, as the investigation is ongoing. However, on Oct. 11, all F-35s of all variants around the world were grounded due to indications that a defect in the fuel tube in the Pratt & Whitney F135 engine may have contributed to the crash. All planes were grounded until their engines could be inspected.
Though the start of F-35B operations at sea certainly pushed the Marines towards a higher capability, the Marine Corps also invested significant time this year to operating in unpredictable ways, focusing forces on locations that challenge Russian aggression, and using experimentation and wargaming to booth the lethality of forces.
The Iwo Jima ARG and 26th MEU’s 2018 deployment highlighted the geographical reach of an ARG/MEU team and the ability to operate dispersed and unpredictably, in line with the Pentagon’s new defense strategy and the Navy’s Dynamic Force Employment concept.
At one point during the deployment, USS Oak Hill (LSD-51) was leading a landing force in the Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) exercise in the Baltic Sea, USS New York (LPD-21) was operating in the Mediterranean Sea and USS Iwo Jima (LHD-7) served as the only source of sea-based naval strike aviation in the Middle East while sailing in the Persian Gulf.
After the BALTOPS exercise, which focused on complex warfare areas and allowed U.S. Marines to get to training ranges they usually wouldn’t have access to, the Iwo Jima ARG returned home only to then set sail again for even farther north in Europe – bringing the 24th MEU to Iceland and then Norway for the Trident Juncture 2018 exercise with NATO allies and partners. The ships and Marines were tested in their ability to operate in extreme weather conditions and along coastlines they don’t usually have access to – though the Marines at least will be gaining even more experience there, after the service announced in late November that it would end its Black Sea Rotational Force and instead boost its rotational forces in Norway, Marine Corps Times reported.
Marines in the Pacific kept busy with the Rim of the Pacific 2018 exercise in Hawaii, as well as three humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions in Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands.
As for the land-based Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force (SP-MAGTF) – which several years ago the Marine Corps began deploying regularly to compensate for a lack of ship-based MEUs due to a shortage of amphib ships – Marine leadership said there will continue to be a place for these forces even as ship counts begin to rise, and even as the SP-MAGTFs’ mission in the Middle East in particular has evolved from a crisis-response force to more of a routine presence in theater to support named operations and bilateral exercises.
Concepts and Wargaming
The Marine Corps continued its experimentation push through the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, working through new concepts and new technologies that can best set up the Marine Corps to fight a future war involving unmanned systems, cyber and information warfare, artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing and other new technologies.
A year into the Sea Dragon experimentation series, the Marine Corps announced in February it was beginning to implement changes already – fielding small unmanned aerial systems, restructuring the rifle squad to include an assistant squad leader and a tech manager, and drawing up new tactics and procedures for a high-end battlefield. MCWL has two more years of experimentation mapped out for the service.
The Marine Corps has been using a combination of experiments, technology demonstrations, fleet exercises and other training venues to all chip away at the problem of how to make the Marine Corps more lethal in a high-end fight.
Within the operational fleet, Marines continue to play with the expeditionary sea base USS Lewis B. Puller (ESB-3) to understand how ground-based SP-MAGTFs or other units may be able to leverage the ship to move Marines, their gear and their MV-22 Ospreys around a theater. As the service learns more about how to use the ship both in lieu of an available amphibious ship as well as in support of a nearby ARG, the second ship in the class, USNS Hershel “Woody” Williams (T-ESB-4), will likely head to the Mediterranean on its maiden deployment after delivering in February and provide another opportunity for experimentation with the platform.
Even as the Marine Corps pushed its forces to become more proficient at high-end warfare, readiness challenges still affected the service in 2018. The service saw several fatal aviation mishaps – a CH-53E crash in California that killed four Marines assigned to Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron (HMH) 465, and an aerial refueling mishap that killed six Marines and injured one – as well as two non-fatal crashes in Djibouti on the same day that forced the Marines to cancel the Alligator Dagger exercise that was just kicking off.
Outgoing Defense Secretary James Mattis set an aggressive goal for the military to achieve an 80-percent mission-capable rate for its fighters by the end of Fiscal Year 2019. The Navy and Marine Corps began to look at what it would take to modernize its depots and its maintenance practices to support this higher readiness rate, with ideas such as improved logistics management systems and additive manufacturing being kicked around.